Lessons Learned 25 Years After Landmark California Water Reform Law

By Meghan Hertel and John McManus

CALIFORNIA’S MOST IMPORTANT federal water reform law – the Central Valley Project Improvement Act (CVPIA) – celebrated its 25th anniversary on October 30. The landmark law, signed by President George H.W. Bush, was a historic effort to protect and restore California’s wetlands, rivers, migratory waterbirds, salmon and other fish species, and also to promote more sustainable water supplies for a drought-prone state.

Before the CVPIA’s passage in 1992, Central Valley rivers, wetlands and salmon runs had been severely damaged by the construction and operation of the federal Central Valley Project (CVP), a water system including 20 dams and 500 miles of canals.

The CVPIA was an ambitious effort to move toward balanced and sustainable water policy. A quarter century later, it’s instructive to review the impact of this legislation, what we’ve learned and what these lessons suggest for future efforts to protect wildlife and natural areas.

Read more here: Water Deeply, November 13, 2017

4 suggestions for improving conservation program outcomes

According to a recent study by researchers from Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment and Point Blue Conservation Science published in the scientific journal Conservation Letters, it is necessary to find ways to sustain the benefits from voluntary conservation practices after the incentive program ends.

In the United States, federal incentive programs aimed at promoting private land conservation fall under the umbrella of the Farm Bill. Typically taking the form of cash payments, tax credits, or cost-share agreements, these incentive programs allow landowners to participate in conservation activities while maintaining ownership of their land.

Persistence, a term introduced in this context by the authors of the study, is the continuation of a conservation practice after incentives from voluntary conservation programs end.

According to lead author Ashley Dayer, assistant professor of human dimensions in Virginia Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, some conservation practices like tree planting are more likely to continue providing benefits without active management by landowners, while other practices, such as conservation crop rotation, would require a more hands-on approach by landowners. In the latter cases, supporting landowners’ behavioral persistence is essential to maintaining environmental benefits.

Read more here: American Agriculturist, September 15, 2017

More Bang for Your Duck

Rice farmer Michael Bosworth can easily recognize the distinctive “kla-ha, kla-ha” call made by white-fronted geese on his property. They always sound like they’re having a good laugh. The birds’ high-pitched yelps reveal their presence before we approach a flock of them among some wintering grounds on a December morning.

“These guys will hang out ’til we drain the fields,” he says, pointing to the geese. “We get bald eagles all winter long.” Swans, great blue herons, white-faced ibis and other waterbirds swim and wade around flooded paddies. A flock flies above in a V formation, each bird catching the updraft of the one before them.

Over the past few years, Bosworth has participated in programs to increase habitat for waterbirds along the 4,000-mile Pacific Flyway. At least one billion birds, representing 300 species, travel this journey from arctic Alaska to Patagonia, at the tip of South America. While that may sound like a lot, scientists believe it’s only a fraction of historic numbers. Along the way, millions of birds spend time in the Sacramento Valley, including at Bosworth’s Rue & Forsman Ranch in Olivehurst.

Bosworth has made his land a prime spot for the birds, and not just for the feel-good eco-vibes. Providing wildlife habitat actually boosts his bottom line.

Read more here: Comstock’s, April 4, 2017

Migratory Bird Habitat Shrinking In California

The Sacramento Valley is a globally important resting and refueling stop for birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway. The valley provides habitat for more than 400,000 birds making their way from Alaska to Argentina and back.

A new study shows the amount of flooded habitat available during peak migration for the birds has decreased every year for the last 30 years.

“We estimate on average that we’ve lost an area of about four times the size of Central Park in each year,” says Danica Schaffer-Smith, a doctoral student with Duke University who conducted the study.

After peak migration, the study also found that the amount of water on the landscape increases five-fold.

Read more and listen to story here: Capital Public Radio, April 4, 2017

Science Night Live: Protecting Bird Habitats In California

California’s ongoing drought and rapid pace of agricultural development could be placing the state’s waterbirds at risks.

The Central Valley’s agricultural landscape does not only feed people around the globe, it also plays a critical role within the animal ecosystem.

The waterbirds are among the animals dependant on the rice, corn, alfalfa and other small grains grown in California.

Khara Strum, Conservation Project Manager at Audubon California talks about what is at stake for the surrounding environment’s fowl.

Listen to full story here: Capitol Public Radio, January 3, 2017

Rice farms receive federal help to provide waterbird habitat

With habitat for California waterbirds drying up, conservation groups and rice farmers are collaborating to flood fields and enhance waterbird habitat on roughly 550,000 acres of California’s rice fields.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service is contributing $7 million, matched by partner agencies, for helping share farmers’ costs of implementing new practices that align rice growing with waterbird needs.

“The idea behind the program is to provide the incentive for people to adopt new things and then do it on their own even without the payment,” program manager Alan Forkey said.

Rice farmers will receive from $5 to over $100 per acre for their participation, depending on factors such as field location and soil type.

“We saw the response of the birds, and the rice industry has decided to invest significantly,” says Paul Buttner, environmental affairs manager with the California Rice Commission, which represents about 2,500 rice farmers and handlers in the state. The vast majority of California rice is grown in the Central Valley, generating more than $5 billion for the state’s economy.


Recycled water project to help West Side reaches milestone

The North Valley Regional Recycled Water Program – in which Modesto and Turlock will send highly treated wastewater to Del Puerto Water District farmers – has reached a major milestone.

The federal Bureau of Reclamation approved what is called the record of decision for the project during a ceremony Friday at the district’s Patterson office. That means the agency has approved the final federal environmental reports for the project, which will allow the two cities to send the water via the bureau’s Delta-Mendota Canal to the water district.

It also means the district can store unused water it receives from the two cities during the rainy season at the Grasslands Wildlife Area, the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge, the Los Banos Wildlife Area and other wetlands.

“This is the largest new block of water developed for San Joaquin Valley wetlands in a quarter century,” Audubon California Working Lands Director Meghan Hertel said in a news release. “The drought has shown how vulnerable these wetlands are, as well as the wildlife that depends on them. This project shows how cooperation can provide effective solutions.”


Water for farms — and fish and fowl

By Brigid McCormack, executive director of Audubon California

In an absurd twist, the villain of the California drought — once the almond farmer — is now the natural world, with some water districts and politicians regularly claiming that we set aside too much water for environmental purposes. Last week, the House passed and moved to the Senate a bill that would divert water from Central Valley wildlife refuges, undermine the Endangered Species Act and reverse the restoration of the San Joaquin River.

Characterizing the environment as an “interested party,” similar to agriculture — as some officials have — is a distortion. But if we go along with this characterization and try to say with a straight face that migratory birds are “users” and endangered fish are “stakeholders,” then it would be fair to conclude that the environment has given more than its share.

Read more here: Los Angeles Times, July 21, 2015

Birds Are Dying As Drought Ravages Avian Highways

Suisun City, California—In years past, long-billed dowitchers flying in from Alaska could count on California stopovers to offer vast stretches of fresh melted snow teeming with plants and insects.

But now, as the Sierra Nevada snowpack has vanished and clouds offer little rain, few lush sanctuaries are available to sustain these shorebirds on their journey along the avian highway known as the Pacific flyway. Experts say that once the dowitchers arrive in the Central Valley this month, their prospects look bleak.

Along the 4,000-mile-long Pacific flyway—one of four main routes in North America for migrating birds—up to six million ducks, geese, and swans wing south every year to find warmth after raising young in the rich habitats of Alaska, Canada, and Siberia. They are joined by millions of shorebirds, songbirds, and seabirds, including the ultimate endurance winner, the arctic tern.

But California’s drought has dried up its wetlands. Many insects, fish, and plants are gone. As a result, some migrating birds have died or been depleted of so much energy that they have trouble reproducing. Thousands of ducks and geese, crowded onto parched rivers and marshes, are felled by botulism and cholera, which race through their feeding grounds.

Read more here: National Geographic, July 16, 2015

Through the Eyes of a Dowitcher


Have you ever tried to see the world through someone else’s eyes? You’d see different challenges, different advantages, and more than likely, you’d learn valuable lessons. Lessons that might help you coexist with greater ease, understanding and benefit.

Imagine you are a Long-billed Dowitcher, a medium-sized sandpiper that weighs about as much as an apple. For such a small animal, you cover a lot of distance. Every fall for nearly 4 million years, your kind has traveled over one thousand miles from your summer breeding grounds in the grassy wet meadows of the high Arctic to your winter home in California’s wetlands. Every spring, you’ve journeyed back north again. In order to survive and thrive you need a vast network of wetlands to provide food and safety. You also need to live in a large group of other birds like you to help you find the best wetlands with the best food and avoid predators. That’s just how you evolved.

For the past couple hundred years your fate has been inextricably linked to the human perspective. At times that did not mesh well with your needs. Luckily for you, people are now making more of an effort to see the world through your eyes.

Read more here: Point Blue Conservation Science, Science for a Blue Planet, July 9, 2015